NOT voting is voting for the opposition

For those of you who will vote today, or have already voted—no matter for whom or what you’re voting—I want to thank you, as someone whose right to vote has been stripped from him.

For those who don’t, I want to make a few points.

First and foremost, something you might not have considered:  If you can vote, but choose to abstain, you are effectively casting a vote for every candidate with whose platform you would be least likely to agree.  How does this work?  It’s very simple:  If you informed yourself and voted—even if you cast your vote along straight party lines, without any deeper thought involved—your vote would be counted and would balance some alternative vote for the candidates or issues you wouldn’t have chosen.  By not voting, you unmask a vote that would have been opposed the one you would have cast.  By not being present, by not voting, you are allowing those who disagree with you to put forward their side unopposed.

Perhaps this is as it should be.  Perhaps those who refuse to vote should have their least-favorite candidates elected.  Perhaps this is a form of justice.  But if so, it’s a justice that doesn’t merely affect you, but harms all those with whom you might agree about any issue.

People give many reasons for not voting, and some of them are understandable.  In many places, specific laws and policies have been enacted that preferentially discourage people of particular political dispositions from voting.  That this happens is reprehensible, and it is to counter just such violations of the spirit of America that it is urgent that all people who can vote take the trouble to do so.

But many people who choose not to vote simply make excuses for what is ultimately just laziness.  It’s too difficult, the polling places are too far away, the needs of everyday life get in the way, all the candidates on all sides are corrupt, my vote doesn’t make any difference anyway.  These arguments seem to carry weight—for those who make them—partly because there is at least a grain of truth in each of them.

It can be difficult to vote.  Depending on one’s circumstances, getting to a polling place can be a chore, especially if one doesn’t have a car.  Sometimes this circumstance has been deliberately engineered, and sometimes it’s just one of those random imperfections of reality.

Voting can also require taking time off work.  For those paid by the hour, this can entail loss of income which they are ill-equipped to bear.  Some will even face threats to their continued employment if they insist upon taking time off to vote, and that such threats happen is a travesty and an insult to the spirit of this country.

To change such things, however, the people interested in changing them must run for and be elected to office, and this will only happen if those who face difficulties find ways around them to the best of their ability.  This may require absentee voting, this may require advance time-off planning, including setting extra money aside to make up for the hours of lost wages entailed in exercising this crucial right.*

As for the point that both sides are corrupt:  even if true, it’s vanishingly unlikely that both sides are equally corrupt or equally reprehensible.  If you don’t vote for the candidate who comes closest to your ideal, then you’re voting for the one who is farthest away.  (See my post, “The good/evil number line.”)

The feeling that one’s vote is unimportant can be powerful; each citizen is just one of hundreds of millions in America.  The sense that by voting one is just spitting in the ocean can be oppressive, especially where Gerrymandering has ensured that in certain districts, votes for particular political candidates do have less influence on outcomes than they should.  But even Gerrymandering can be overcome by a strong enough voter turnout, and only by making that happen can it and other such injustices be overturned.

Looked at honestly, though, the character of many people’s reasons for not voting seems like a child saying that his dog ate his homework, when really, the homework was just difficult, and he had other things on his mind so he didn’t do it.

The homework may be difficult.  There may be many, seemingly more urgent, matters at hand.  But if you don’t vote, you’ve given a free vote to those who disagree with you politically.  They will get out and vote.  And their vote will count…all the more so because of the absence of your vote.


*We treat this right rather poorly here in the US, which is something of a puzzle when you think about it.  There are nations on this planet where voting is not merely a right but a legal obligation.  This may be carrying things a bit too far, but there are also countries where election days are national holidays, where workers cannot be forced to work on polling days unless they provide essential services, as with those who work in hospitals, fire departments, police departments, and the like.  It seems like an idea worth trying.

Our public discourse could benefit from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

One of the most frustrating facts about the current level and character of our political discourse—as typified by the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings for appointment to the Supreme Court—is the degree to which it amounts to so many gangs of monkeys hurling feces at each other.

And yet, in characterizing the matter this way, I’m indulging in the very thing that I’m decrying (and I didn’t do it just to make a point—that really was my honest reaction, and I only caught myself after the fact).  It seems to me that, more and more over the past few decades, we approach disagreements about policies, economics, and other social concerns with an attitude appropriate to children calling each other names on a playground, or to rabid sports fans supporting their team against bitter rivals, as though that enmity were etched into the very bedrock of existence.

Yet, even among sports fans, and certainly among players, there is traditionally an underlying ethos of good sportsmanship.  Pettiness, vindictiveness, name-calling…these things are not admired among serious athletes, those who love their sport for its own sake.

But the level of “discussion” between those who disagree about political matters simply reeks of the same cognitive biases and distortions that play a role in mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and which such techniques as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have been designed to counteract.  I long for the application of CBT to our public discourse, especially about matters of deep import that have a serious impact on the lives of many people.  We fall prey to fallacies of absolutist, Us/Them, good/evil, all-or-nothing thinking, of mind-reading, of catastrophizing, and to blind and rabid tribalism in areas where we would do better to engage the highest regions of our brains to make sound judgements.

One of the most refreshing posts I’ve seen regarding the Kavanaugh hearings was by a local, central-Florida-based, “libertarian” politician, who said that while he had mixed feelings about the accusations being made about Kavanaugh regarding past sexual assault, this didn’t really matter—at least with respect to the confirmation hearing—because Kavanaugh’s stance on the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional issues regarding Presidential power and accountability were already bad enough to make him a poor choice for the Supreme Court.  In other words, he wanted to focus on matters of substance relating to the specific qualifications for the job for which Kavanaugh was being considered.

This is not to say that allegations of sexual assault aren’t serious matters—they certainly are.  The fact of these allegations and the varying character of the reactions to them are reminders and examples of important issues that trouble our society, and which require addressing.  It’s not unreasonable to decide that the character of a man who would sexually assault a woman—if he did—makes him unsuitable for one of the most crucial positions in our national government.  But it’s also not entirely unreasonable to be at least a little curious about the timing of the allegations, and to wonder whether that timing ought to have any bearing on whether we judge them to be true or not.  These matters can be soberly considered in evaluating the candidate.

But “sober” is not a word one would be inclined to use to describe the level of discussion on this very serious set of concerns.  Rather, we see a plethora of memes that focus on silly facial expressions of Kavanaugh, or of Lindsey Graham, or of Christine Blasey Ford, as though the transient set of one’s features as captured in single frames of video feeds has any bearing on whether a person is truthful or not, or whether they are of good character.  This is less convincing than phrenology, frankly, and should be beneath the dignity of those who judge these issues to be pivotal.

Important concerns have been and are being raised by this event, and they are worthy of discussion, consideration, and action.  It’s a serious issue to consider the various cultural forces that lead countless women—and men, as well—who have been victims of sexual assault to keep silent, rather than bring out accusations only to have them dismissed or taken lightly.  It’s likewise a real issue whether the timing of these particular accusations, by raising shades of political machination, weakens the gravitas of the “MeToo” movement and harms its broad acceptance.

It’s also of real worry that so many people don’t seem to understand the difference between a confirmation hearing and a criminal trial, and that there are different standards of evidence involved because the purpose of the occasions is very different.

And it is a very real concern just to what degree we wish to allow the potential undermining of checks on Executive power such as might be engendered by giving the lifetime Supreme Court appointment to someone who is soft on that issue.

To deal with any and all of these concerns is worthwhile, perhaps even absolutely necessary.  But we are not actually dealing with them.  Much of the discourse, even at the “highest” levels, about these matters, amounts to sheer rhetoric and attempted manipulation, of others and of ourselves.  Outrage is fun, or at least it’s exciting, and we seem to be growing addicted to it, at the expense of our ability to deal with important matters in a reasonable fashion.  In this, our discourse is reminiscent of our civil and criminal trials, which amount to jousting matches between hired champions, where the one most skilled at emotional chicanery, at engaging and making use of our many inherent cognitive biases, tends to win.

It shouldn’t be about “winning”.  It should be about the seeking of truth, the attempt to achieve the best possible outcome we can manage as a society.  One of the things I like most about the US Constitution is that it is, in character, a very scientific document.  It arranges a system of government as a starting point, but it ensures peer review in the form of the various checks and balances, and always leaves itself open, in principle and in practice, to the updating of its model, in the form of the amendment process.  I wish we could approach matters of national concern, that bear on the interpretation of that document—and frankly, all important matters—with calm heads worthy of the Constitution’s character.

The fact that someone disagrees with you on some particular point does not mean that they are evil, and the fact that they agree with you on some other emotionally salient issue does not automatically make them good.

The world is complex.  And while it’s true that humans are primates—so it’s not all that surprising that we fall into primate dominance display patterns rather easily, especially when our emotions become aroused—we should recognize that this is almost always a weakness when dealing with issues that couldn’t have been faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors over evolutionary time.  Complicated problems benefit most from careful, rational thought, and calm, reasonable discussion in which everyone recognizes their own fallibility and all are open—at least in principle—to having their minds changed.

We seem to have a societal mood disorder, some population-based depression/anxiety syndrome, that makes us prone to counter-productive thoughts and behaviors.  Given this, we should remind ourselves of some of the cognitive distortions typical of such disorders, such as:  all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralization; mental filtering; discounting the positives; jumping to conclusions; magnification and minimization; emotional reasoning; overusing “should” statements; labeling; and blame.

It would be nice if we could all be a bit more Stoic in our approach to public issues, especially ones of great import.  It’s precisely because serious concerns are so prone to make us emotional that we should defend ourselves against the distortions of our emotional reactions, and against descending to playground-level invective rather than engaging in serious conversation.  It’s when matters are most consequential that our passions are most likely to be aroused—but this is precisely the time when we should be most on our guard against succumbing to their every dictate.  Serious problems are rarely solved by name-calling and reactionary vilification.

We really need to do better.  We can do better, I have no doubt about that.  And the answer to the question of whether or not we will do better will have serious consequences.

Vote Out the Incumbents!

It’s National Voter Registration Day here in the USA.  I’ll give a little commentary on that subject, since it’s extremely consequential and yet too few people take the time to think much about it.

In America, the approaching election is called a “mid-term” election, because it’s in the middle of the term of the current president.  It doesn’t have any direct effect on the presidential administration (though its indirect effects can be immense).  However, though the president wields tremendous power, more than any other individual in the nation at any given time, the collective power of the Senate and the House of Representatives—the Congress—is greater still, and more far-reaching.  Congress creates and modifies the laws that the Executive Branch is tasked with enforcing.  It is the Legislative Branch (Congress) that confirms the judiciary at the Federal level, that confirms the various other executive appointments, and that codifies the duties and activities of the regulatory agencies brought into existence by law.  And the record of the Legislative Branch—in the eyes of the citizenry they nominally serve—has been appalling for a very long time. Continue reading “Vote Out the Incumbents!”

The good/evil number line

During the last presidential election (some of you may remember it) occasional memes floated through social media making pronouncements to the effect that choosing the lesser of two evils (e.g. Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump in these memes’ cases) is still choosing evil.  These memes often came from first hopeful, then frustrated, Bernie Sanders supporters, but it’s a notion that’s by no means confined to such groups.  Ideologues of all stripes, from the religious, to the political, to the social-scientific and beyond, fall prey to the classic mental fallacy of the false dichotomy—the notion that the world is divided into two absolute, opposite natures, and that if their own ideas are pure and good (nearly everyone, on all sides, seems to believe this of themselves), then any choice other than the pure realization of their ideas in all forms is somehow a descent into evil.  Many people implicitly believe that even to choose the “lesser of two evils” is somehow to commit a moral betrayal that can be even worse than simply choosing evil for its own sake.

I hope to explode this notion as the destructive claptrap that it is. Continue reading “The good/evil number line”

Remember the reason for the season

As we in the United States prepare to celebrate the 4th of July, also known as Independence Day, I want to remind my readers to think about the real reason behind the holiday.  This has a bit of the character of a devout Christian enjoining everyone to remember “the reason for the season,” at Christmastime, and I’m far from embarrassed by the comparison (though we have more immediate reasons to connect the 4th day of July with this celebration than Christians do with December 25th).

The celebration of the 4th in modern America—and for some time longer, as far as I know—tends to center on the launching of fireworks, nominally in recollection of the battle commemorated in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and on the celebration of the flag itself.  While I have no deep problem with enjoying those symbols, I am impatient with the fact that the flag has become the center of that celebration, and the focus of American patriotism, as well as with the blind and thoughtless idea of American exceptionalism, especially in the era of “Make America Great Again,” and other such vacuous statements.  We have become a people that, on the surface, seem to think of America as exceptional for reasons of fate, or Divine Providence, or some other mere happenstance.  But if America is great, it is not great in any set of its current circumstances, but in the ideas upon which it was founded.

I encourage everyone to reread, on the occasion of the celebration of the birth of the United States of America, The Declaration of Independence, and preferably also the United States Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights.  These are the ideas at the heart of what America really means, and if America is ever to achieve the greatness made possible by those ideas, in any durable and important way, it will need to do so by commitment to the principles there described.

The key sentence of the Declaration of Independence is the second one:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

These were revolutionary concepts, though they had their roots in the Enlightenment principle that the purpose of government is to serve the people governed.  In this they are very different from traditional “Judeo-Christian values” (despite those frequently being claimed as our government’s basis), for those ideas are inherently authoritarian and dogmatic, while those of America have more the character of the scientific method.  Governments are a means of solving problems, and must always, in principle, be open to revision and improvement.  This is perhaps the most important, the most crucial aspect of the Constitution:  not the famous division of powers, with its various checks and balances, excellent though those things are, but the idea that the Constitution is amenable to continual and constant revision and amendment, as new, hopefully better, ideas come to the fore.

The first ten such amendments are the Constitutional framers’ attempt to codify more fully the notion of “unalienable Rights,” as described by Jefferson in the Declaration, and are sensibly called The Bill of Rights.  They are the explicit statements that, no matter what expediency might seem to justify it, and even if a majority desire it, a government has no business infringing the rights of the citizens, even be it one individual whose rights would be infringed.

The very nature of American government, as it was founded, contradicts any notion of blind patriotism.  The nation, the law, the government, these are not ends in themselves, but are means to an end, and they serve the rights and well-being of the citizenry.  Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, and when it fails to protect those governed, it is the right—many would say the duty—of the citizenry to make changes, for an infringement of the rights of any individual is a threat to the rights of every individual.

The United States is only great to the degree that it strives to live up to these ideals, which are still probably best expressed in its founding document.  This is what we should remember and celebrate on this anniversary of the birth of the nation:  not a flag, though the flag is nice; not a song, though the song is stirring; not fireworks, though they are fun, and the battle they recreate was no doubt impressive.  The United States of America is not a place, but an idea—the idea that government exists for the sake of the individual citizens of the country, not the other way around.  It is the duty of the government to protect and nurture the rights, the liberty, the pursuit of happiness of the people it serves, and dissent should not merely be allowed but is a fundamental duty.

Read the Declaration on this Independence Day.  Read the Bill of Rights.  Participate fully in your local, state, and federal government.  Vote.

And by all means, if you disagree with me (or with your government) feel free to say so and to do something about it.

Treat new laws like experiments

Some years ago, when I first read Carl Sagans’s The Demon-Haunted World, I encountered a notion that stuck in my mind and has grown more prominent as the years have passed.  This is the idea that laws, as made in a democracy, are a form of experiment, but that they are carried out without any of the sensible objective measures and controls that make scientific experiments so useful.  I think this is clearly true, and I think we should all try to petition our legislators to approach laws in this scientific fashion.

Many—perhaps most—new laws are proposed to prevent, or correct, or create some specific situation…presumably altering something that isn’t quite the way we want it to be.  Unfortunately, the way laws are proposed and assessed is through public debate—at best.  As civil and criminal courtrooms demonstrate, when an important matter is addressed mainly through debate, the outcome isn’t necessarily that the best or truest idea is chosen, but that those who are most skilled at rhetoric and manipulation rule the day.  This is not a much more reliable way to make good decisions than by holding a jousting match.  It’s not good in court, and it’s worse in the halls of legislature, where the quality of discourse is often even lower than one often finds among courtroom lawyers (“If the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” is at least mildly clever, as opposed to the appalling spectacle of an elected legislator in the Federal Government bringing a snowball into the Capitol Building as evidence against climate change).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, with every proposed new bill, the proposer had to articulate what problem was to be addressed by the legislation, and what result was being sought.  Then, in the subsequent discussions, legislators could better focus their inquiries, bringing existing information to bear, including the outcomes of prior, similar legislation.  Also—and here is a key point—each bill could contain specific language detailing by what means its relative success of failure would be measured, how that data would be collected, at what frequency it would be evaluated, and at what point—if ever—the measure would have been found to fail.  We know that most measures, if measured, would fail, based on the experience of science, in which the vast majority hypotheses end up disproven, even when proposed by the best and brightest minds in the world.  How much more likely is it that ideas proposed by the likes of our legislators are going to be shown to be ineffective?

Of course, the real world—the laboratory where each new law would be tested—is a messy place, with innumerable confounding variables, correlations which have nothing to do with causation, unreliable data, and so on.  So, we wouldn’t necessarily want to hold legislative outcome checks to quite the same standards of rigor as those to which we hold particle physics.  But simply requiring each new bill to contain a statement of hoped-for outcomes, of measures by which it would be considered to have succeeded or failed, and a required time of review, could produce better laws, influenced from the beginning by more information and logic than rhetoric.  Even if no definitive answer was available at the time of a planned review, that review might still inspire new ideas about how better to measure outcomes, and perhaps even ways to tweak a law to make its outcome more clearly beneficial.  Most importantly, it would be much easier to recognize and discard the failures.

Of course, to initiate such a policy of lawmaking would require something even more sweeping than a Constitutional amendment.  It would require that we elect representatives capable of bringing a scientific mindset to matters of fact.  This, in turn, would require a voting population with the ability to judge among and select such individuals, rather than the charlatans and hucksters they tend to elect.  This in turn would require both a change in the educational style of the country and a cultural shift in which we give greater precedence to logic and reason, rather than our usual approaches to life, which are only more sophisticated than those of chimpanzees in that they are more complicated, but which are not necessarily any more rational.*

It’s a tall order, I know.  But the possible improvements in our laws, in the way public policy is carried out, and in the general health and well-being of the nation would be potentially vast.

They would also be much more measurable.


*See last week’s post on teaching probability and statistics, for instance.